By Margie Wuebker
Dr. Richard Nockowitz, one of three speakers at a Monday night program hosted by Briarwood Manor and Celina Manor nursing homes, believes the incidence of Alzheimer's disease will quadruple as Baby Boomers age.
"We will see it more as this large segment of the population ages," Nockowitz said. "Researchers are still looking and trying to nail down the cause."
Alzheimer's disease is a disorder that results in the loss of brain cells. It is the most common cause of dementia, a gradual and progressive decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills.
Some dementia is reversible, particularly if caught and treated early. They generally progress in what Nockowitz calls a "step wise decline." Any decline is followed by months or years of stability. Other causes of dementia include brain injuries, vascular problems and Parkinson's disease.
Alzheimer's disease, on the other hand, has a straight decline unmarked by periods of relative stability. The disease often follows three phases. The first, which can last two to four years, involves mild forgetfulness. Often the person, a spouse or another family member will cover up such deficiencies.
The middle phase, which often runs from five to eight years, gives rise to behavior and mood changes. The victim may exhibit aggression, agitation and paranoia.
Deterioration occurs rapidly in the last phase, which typically lasts one to three years. Neurologically, the brain is no longer working and patients encounter problems with coordinated activities like walking and swallowing.
"The demise of the patient is not due to Alzheimer's disease but from some physical problem," Nockowitz said.
Research has indicated a tie between protein cells in the brain and Alzheimer's. The body recognizes these cells as foreign bodies. Studies into vaccines to target those foreign bodies appear promising.
"Alzheimer's disease is a devastating disease that affects more and more of the body," he added. "The goal is to beat it to the punch."
In addition to vaccines, researchers are working on new medication therapies as well as more definitive testing methods.
Barbara Flathers, an Alzheimer's/dementia consultant, talked about the importance of sensory factors to someone whose mind is affected by the disorder.
"Touch is so important," she said. "And some fragrances prompt memories from long ago. In the earlier stages of Alzheimer's, patients have no problem remembering things that occurred years ago but they can't recall what they ate for breakfast."
She illustrated the advance of the disease with the fictional story of a woman who immigrated to the U.S. at a young age. She raised children and experienced widowhood twice. Memory problems surfaced one Sunday as she headed to church -- the same one she had attended for years. However, she lost her way a half block from the destination and finally arrived just as the service ended.
More signs appear over time and she no longer drives anywhere, preferring to let someone else climb behind the wheel. Like peeling an onion, one layer of memory after another gradually disappears. Someone eventually noticed she has worn the same outfit on successive days.
She gradually stops recognizing her children; after all she is 40 in her mind and not 80. The people before her must be parents or folks she knew in another era.
"Your body language and the sound of your voice are important," Flathers said. "A person with Alzheimer's finally reaches a point where they do not understand words but they pick up on your tone."
Like a newborn who does not know the meaning of words, the patient reacts to such things as a reassuring pat on the back and a blur of words delivered tenderly.
"No matter how far Alzheimer's advances, one thing patients never forget is love," she added. "The sound of a reassuring and kind voice tells them this is someone they love. Sensory things are still with them somewhere."
Linda Pollitz, program manager for the Northwest Ohio Alzheimer's Chapter in Lima, gave an update on programs and services available through her office.
She encouraged families dealing with Alzheimer's disease to attend support group meetings. In Mercer County, the meetings take place the second Tuesday of the month at 2 p.m. at Celina Manor, 1001 Myers Road.
Meetings in Auglaize County take place the second Tuesday of the month at 2 p.m. at Valley Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 1140 S. Knoxville Road, and the fourth Thursday of the month at 1 p.m. at Otterbein-St. Marys Retirement Community, 11230 state Route 364. The latter group does not meet in December.